Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Human Rights: Asean versus Universal standards

EARLY THIS MONTH, the UN special envoy for Burma (also known as Myanmar), Tomas Ojea Quintana wrote a letter to the chairman, Do Ngoc Son, of the Asean Intergovern- mental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), asking for a meeting "to exchange views" on their respective organisations and activities. The request was quickly turned down.

Instead, he met with representatives from Thailand and Indonesia. In Jakarta, Asean permanent representatives including Burma also attended the meeting, which was described as useful and insightful.

Views were varied within Asean whether AICHR should meet with Ojea Quintana at this point. Like it or not with its establishment in October 2009, AICHR has automatically become the focus point of all activities related to human rights issues in Asean. Both Thailand and Indonesia thought that AICHR should have the opportunity to discuss issues related to human rights, especially those related to Asean, with Ojea Quintana who can bring in the much needed international perspectives. Both countries believed that various aspects of human rights issues raised by the UN envoy would impact on Asean in the future.

Earlier, the UN special envoy called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry (COI) into crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese junta leaders, citing the "the gross and systematic nature of human rights violations in Myanmar over a period of many years." Given the lack of accountability for those abuses, he suggested the UN initiate a specific fact-finding mandate to investigate the possibility of international crimes.

It was a big blow to the reputation of Asean. For nearly 13 years since Burma's admission, Asean has not been able to use peer pressure to improve the human rights condition there. In fact, the gross and systematic abuses have continued unabated. Worse, this issue has not been picked up by any Asean member even though the political situation in Burma was generally discussed. It is understandable, as all members have dismal records on human rights. Only four Asean countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines) have established national human rights commissions that allow such sensitive issues to be discussed widely in the media and public.

Human rights activists in these countries have already challenged their governments to end the culture of impunity and investigate specific cases of human rights violations. In Thailand, a special commission was recently set up to investigate the deaths of 90 persons killed during the April-May political crisis. Human rights and grass-roots leaders and activists joined the commission. Last month, President Aquino created a truth commission to probe rights abuses, including the massacre in Maquindanao last November.

Until now there has not been any reaction from the Asean countries, even though all are members of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Asean has different views on the political situation and rights conditions inside Burma. But nearly all do not perceive the situation as warranting an international inquiry team. Deep down, they fear that it would set a precedence for future UN-sanctioned fact-finding teams to be dispatched to their respective countries. To them, it is an act of interference.
During the drafting process of terms of reference to set up AICHR, several progressive ideas including fact-findings, annual reports and regional rights' monitoring were raised and subsequently dismissed. Again, only Thailand and Indonesia backed such an approach that would go beyond the promotion to protection.

Indeed, the COI can further divide Asean, as Bangkok and Jakarta might want to support such an international effort as a goodwill political gesture for universal norms. The Philippines, under the new President, Benigno "Noy" Aquino, has already pledged strongly to uphold principles of human rights and end all impunity inside the country. Such guarantees would certainly improve Manila's human rights commitment within the Asean context.

Since Ojea Quintana proposed the COI creation, the US has backed the call together with Australia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the UK. More countries would be expected in the future. With the US in such a position, it could also strain the overall Asean-US relations which have surged positively in the past few months.
However, it would be interesting to watch if the European Union can take a common position on the commission of inquiry. In case, the EU has a common position, it would further increase the international pressure on Asean.

In the upcoming 12 months, AICHR members have to complete the Declaration of Asean Human Rights, the first of its kind in the region. It will be another uphill task. At least seven members still object to the participatory and consultative process, which was proposed by Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. In this case, representatives of civil society organisations (CSO) would be considered as stakeholders.

Consultations between the Asean decision makers and CSO representatives began in earnest in Kuala Lumpur at the 11th Asean Summit in 2005. The momentum, which was gradually built, led to a series of meetings in the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand between the Asean and CSO leaders over the past five years.

Last year at the Cha-am summit in October, some Asean leaders boycotted the meeting over the choices of CSO representatives and topics of discussion. The current chair of Asean, Vietnam, opposed the previous format, known as interface, deployed by Thailand. Hanoi preferred a low-key meeting solely among Asean-based CSO at a different location and time.

As long as the AICHR members continue to block each other's initiatives to genuinely protect the human rights in Asean, the effort to transform the Asean Community into a people-oriented organisation would be a pipe dream. The Nation, Bangkok

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